Muirfield, 1959. A 23-year-old Gary Player has come from four shots behind at the start of the final day to lead the field at the British Open. Conditions are mild – surprisingly, for England in July, the rain has held off – and the young South African is on the verge of an extraordinary comeback.
Because he started so far behind the leaders, he finishes long before those chasing him. The final hole is a disaster: Player three-putts. Thinking that he’s blown his chance at a first major, he walks back to the clubhouse fighting back tears.
The night before, he had told one of his sponsors that if he shot a 66 on the final day, he would win. To come so close to fulfilling that ambitious boast – thwarted by two wayward putts on the final green – and fail is heart-breaking for the young golfer.
Then the wind picks up, and the scores of those still on the course fall to pieces. Player’s final round of 68 proves good enough to win by two strokes, and he becomes the youngest ever winner of the British Open.
Now, more than 50 years later, Player’s still got the same physique he had at the age of 23. He is a living testament to how well the human body can withstand the debilitating effects of time. He’s still got the same classic golfer’s look: tucked in golf shirt, hair combed back – grey now, but still styled in the same way – and shoes so polished they catch the sun.
Gary Player’s ethos – eat well, work hard, and stay lean – has kept him, at the age of 77, in better shape than most 20 year olds. He wakes up at five in the morning every day, and doesn’t stop working until he goes to sleep.
He outlasted the other members of golf’s big three, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, by taking care of himself, and by being more driven than anyone else. He stands five feet six inches tall, but could hit the ball as far as anyone in his prime.
Maybe it was growing up poor, and maybe it was losing his mother at the age of eight, but Gary Player’s drive is absolutely unparalleled. He is a self-described workaholic – where most people have trouble doing 50 crunches, Player happily ploughs through over 1000 on a daily basis, while also doing manual labour on his farm if he’s at home and travelling for his many business interests. His mindset is simple.
“I don’t believe in entitlement. I’m entitled to nothing: you’ve got to work and earn it the old-fashioned way. I really believe in my heart that I was successful because I have that kind of nature. I always work harder than everybody else.”
He came to golf relatively late, when his father introduced him to the game at the age of 14. Initially sceptical, he was eventually drawn in by the sport’s toughness. That’s the kind of person Player is: the higher the degree of difficulty, the more demanding the task, the more attractive it becomes to him. Rugby, cricket, athletics – school sports that Player also excelled at – began to lose their allure. For someone with Player’s drive and willpower, the absurd difficulty of golf makes it a perfect fit.
“It’s a lonely sport,” he says. “Coming down the final nine holes of the British Open, you’re not laughing very much.” Embracing that loneliness has brought him success that is truly unparalleled. The litany of accomplishments that he has to his name is frightening. He’s won the career grand slam of golf on both the professional and senior circuits – the only person to have done so. He’s also raised more than $50 million for charity, and has a successful business designing golf courses.
People who play sports professionally make a trade-off: earn fame, adulation and a huge amount of money. Play the game you love – but have a ludicrously short career. Ten years for the lucky, fifteen at the outside. Twenty comes around once in a generation. Gary Player pulled off fifty. True, golf is a sport that lends itself to longer careers than rugby or football, but even so, Player’s longevity as a sportsman is admirable in its own right.
Throw in the nine major tournament wins, the record 52 Masters tournaments that he’s played in, as well as the 23 consecutive cuts that he has made, and Player’s story begins to look less like a life than an exercise in record breaking.
“In golf, to win a major, you’ve got to play against 156 guys and everybody’s teeing off at different times, completely different conditions.” The last time he managed the feat was also one of his most memorable victories.
It was the Masters in 1978, and Player went into the final round seven shots behind Hubert Green, the leader going into the last day. In Augusta’s Southern heat, Player came alive. He shot an obscene 30 on the back nine, birdying the final hole with a 15-foot putt. He’d promised his caddy, Eddie McCoy, a new house if he won – a proposition that can’t have seemed likely at the time. Player came out with the victory, and McCoy got a new home.
Early on in his career, one of the key adjustments Player made to his swing was to weaken his grip. Holding the club as tightly as he had been meant that he was prone to hooking the ball, losing accuracy and distance on his drives.
That adjustment is an insight into an unexpected aspect of Player’s nature: his single-minded focus does not stop him from taking a step back and loosening his hold, not to stop working, but to approach a problem from a different angle.
It’s something that also applies to his philosophy on losing which, for someone as competitive and motivated as Player, is surprisingly relaxed: “Losing was always quite easy for me because my father always said to me: ‘look, you’re going to lose more than you’re going to win. Enjoy the success of others.’”
It’s a very different attitude from the one usually espoused by professional sportsmen: that any result that isn’t victory is criminal. It’s probably also one of the reasons that he had such a long career as a sportsman, and has been able to live as actively as he does: he has the ability to focus completely on a goal, without letting the prospect of failure shake his nerves or upset his stability.
His longevity is extraordinary. Being the champion golfer that he is earned him the title of South Africa’s Sportsman of the Century. That should be enough for anyone, to relax in the knowledge that they have earned the right to kick back and put their feet up.
His 2009 appearance at the Masters – at the age of 73, his last, and the one that broke Arnold Palmer’s record – could have provided an opportunity to dial back his profile, to head sedately into retirement and hand over the keys to his estate to someone else.
The ovation that he received from the crowd as he walked towards the eighteenth green certainly made it feel like a seminal moment. They clapped as though he’d won the tournament, and Player took to a knee and doffed his cap before he made it onto the green. If ever there was a moment to slow down, that was it. Player can’t, though. He’s thrown himself into his businesses, and now makes more money in a year than he did in his entire career playing golf – money that supports his many charitable foundations. The work that he continues to do means that the wake of his legacy is going to stretch far beyond his lifetime, and people all over the world are going to benefit from his life. Even when he’s long gone. Player will be working harder than anyone else.